Livestock at Your Retreat, by Samantha

Livestock, while not strictly essential to post-TEOTWAWKI survival, are certainly on the to-have list of the majority of all survival-minded individuals. However, it is also a subject rarely broached within those same circles, and concise, laymen’s term pointers are a hard find. For the most part where the U.S. is concerned, what was once knowledge crucial to the survival of men the world round has now dwindled, in effect, to the level of a hobby.
In brief, I’ll cover the three most basic issues which apply to all manner of livestock, and then broach species-specific information. I encourage everyone with even a mild interest in keeping livestock unfamiliar to them to get involved with the animal as soon as possible: most community colleges, for instance, have cost-effective, basic courses concerning animal science of all types.
Space is a governing factor, where livestock are concerned – and will often dictate what sort of livestock you have. A good rule of thumb for larger animals (horses, cattle, llamas, etc.), is that two acres of pasture should be available for every individual. With any less, the pasture can easily become overgrazed, and subsequently barren and/or muddy, which can lead to such diseases as foundering, and may also, via rain runoff, damage any nearby crops. A good ten feet or so of fallow ground should be placed between crops and pastures, to greatly reduce damaging runoff and also to give grasses a ‘handhold’ from which they can always re-establish themselves into the pasture. (A brief, comprehensive guide to pasture management can be found here.)
Feed is critically important, and most animals eat a surprising amount. Some animals, like goats, can forage for themselves quite effectively in almost any season, if left to their own devices in a large enough enclosure. Others, notably cattle and horses, have been raised so that they expect food – grain and hay – to be brought to them periodically during all seasons, most importantly winter, and have generally lost the ability to winter themselves. Will you have enough acreage to grow enough hay to last your animals through the winter? Or the tools to harvest and bale it? An interesting solution to this is to mix corn stalks with hay. When done in a fairly small ratio, this roughage has no adverse effects on the animal, and can greatly extend the life of your hay supply. Another alternative would be to purchase animals raised to winter on their own: but these animals are often under-socialized to human contact, and can be a bit of a handful to manage.
Futurity. You’re not keeping these animals to have eaten them all within a season – you’re wanting to create a sustainable ecosystem. Look at your retreat location critically, and find animals suited and accustomed to the terrain and climates. Then look even more critically at the animals you want to stock it. For most big-time livestock operations, a certain amount of line breeding in stock is acceptable: you want to avoid this when choosing the few individual animals that are going to be your potential lifeline, especially with smaller animals that have frequent breeding cycles. Letting rabbits or chickens inbreed out of neglect is one of the fastest ways to reduce their utility (especially as feed animals), so keeping males and females separate, and creating breeding records, can be a sure lifesaver. With bigger stock (cattle, horses, etcetera…) inbreeding is less of a problem, but should still be a concern: few people have the land, finances, and know-how to manage herds of livestock, which reduces your potential gene pool immensely. With luck, a neighbor might allow you breeding rights to a bull or stallion for a modest barter fee – and on the other hand, keeping an in-tact male on hand might offer similarly rewarding opportunities for trade. As a special note, extremely few fish breeders care about inbreeding in their stock: typically, only fish with very obvious malformations are destroyed. It’s a good idea, if you’re going to stock a pond, to buy your fish from at least two different vendors.
My top-choice breed of horse for post-apocalyptic living would be a BLM-captured Mustang [feral horse]. These animals aren’t much to look at, but they’re small and hardy. When other horses are thin in winter, waiting at the gates for hay, these animals will be fat and glossy, digging up grass roots to eat. They prosper naturally in almost every type of terrain and climate, and are priced at a steal. At BLM auctions, a single horse will usually sell for between 100 and 300 dollars. This, of course, means you’re stuck with a wild horse, but the BLM also sells trained-to-ride Mustangs at a gently higher price. Most of these horses weren’t sold at their first or second auctions, and then trained through prison good-behavior programs. Runner up would be a Percheron. These are draft horses, so they’re more than capable of carrying or pulling an extraordinary weight – and they’re often trained to ride, drive, and occasionally even plow. Typically, most drafts have a slow and easygoing temperament, which is an especially key trait if you have children. Since drafts are rather ‘out of fashion’, you can usually get a well-bred, well-trained horse for between 1 and 3 thousand. Often these horses are sold in driving pairs at deep discounts. There are hundreds of breeds of horses, and it’s a good idea to stick to ‘working’ breeds. The ‘eventing’ breeds tend to be more high strung, and their popularity often results in bad breeding practices.
If you’re wanting to maximize the utility of your cattle, you want a breed that gives a high meat return but is also good for milking. For this (and especially if you’re new to cattle), I would recommend Brown Swiss. These animals are slow and gentle to the point of extreme lethargy, making them easy handling even for young children. Calving is easily one of the hardest parts of owning cattle – the list of possible complications is extraordinary – and these cattle are rather renowned for their easy time of it. They’re hardy and don’t need much looking after, and are very suitable for colder climates. If you’re looking to maximize the lifelong utility of your cattle, the South Devon is a safe bet. Again, calving is a big part of owning cattle, which is what warrants this breed as second choice – they’ve been aptly nicknamed ‘the maternal beef’. These cattle, unlike most, produce milk and calves well into their teens.
As a special note, miniature cattle are starting to gain popularity, and as I don’t have any experience with them, I won’t be so brash as to make the recommendation: however, I have heard a lot of positive things from small family beef farms about their utility, especially for small acreage, and I encourage others to look it up.
Small Ruminants:
For the most part, I recommend sheep more than goats; they’re less predisposed to sickness, and are generally much less ornery. If you’re prepared to acquire a herding dog, sheep are much easier to herd and shift than goats, and there is the added benefit of their fleece (but if you don’t want to go through the trouble of de-fleecing, there are some breeds of sheep without wool). However, with sheep, there is a notable safety concern: do not, under any circumstances let pregnant women near lambing ewes, because the same chemical that triggers aborting in ewes can trigger aborting in women. If you’re not terribly concerned with wool yield or quality, I recommend Suffolk sheep.
Goats revert to their feral state faster than any other domestic animal with the exception of the house cat. In my experience, they are notorious escapees, a bit on the sickly side, and take a considerable amount of physical wrangling to manage. However, if they suit your fancy, I would recommend the Kinder breed, hands down. They’re medium sized dual-purpose goats (milk and meat), and does average out in maturity as about 115 pounds. They have between 3 to 6 kids a year, which will each weigh around 80 pounds in 14 months… They are extremely efficient meat converters.
Geese and ducks can be just as useful as chickens, generally because they’ll tend to feed themselves more often. One thing few consider about raising chickens is the fact that a good deal of corporate-bought chicks won’t sit their eggs – which can definitely present a problem, if you’re hoping to have more than one generation of chickens. A good way to work around this is to either just buy mature brooding hens from a small farmer, or one hen and her brood. Just as with cattle and small ruminants, there are dual-purpose breeds: breeds which are both good egg layers and have a high meat yield: Dominiques, Orpingtons, and Plymouth Rocks are all good for the job. If you want to slowly get used to the idea of owning chickens before going so far as to own a flock, country feed stores and the like will often sell color-dyed chicks for Easter (they can make an educational present for children). I recommend chickens very highly, because they’re small and hardy enough that you can keep them anywhere – even in the city, so long as you have a modest backyard – and not only will you have the benefit of fresh eggs every day, and the best chicken you’ve ever tasted – but you will be that much more prepared when the grid goes down, and the supermarkets are empty. A really great site about getting involved with raising chickens while living in the city can be found here.